Here's a thought experiment. Imagine that the director of a medium budget Hollywood action movie, something like The Expendables, gave an interview shortly after the film's release. Let's say he was asked what the hardest part of filming the movie was. Was it working with so many stars, or coordinating expensive action scenes?
Imagine that his answer was "The hardest part was my penis."
Then imagine the reaction. While a few teenage fans might chuckle, most people would wonder how, exactly, the person in charge of the making of a massive consumer product could, in a public setting, make such a weird and off-color statement.
Of course, that would probably never happen. The context of Hollywood—the money involved, the maturity of the press covering the industry, the forces of selection that allow people to rise to the level of directing a major Hollywood film—simply wouldn't let it. And if it did, there would be likely repercussions: in the press, among fans, and professionally.
But it did happen in gaming. In a Reddit AMA, shortly after the release of the game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, that game's creative director, Dean Evans, said that the hardest part of working on the game was his penis.
It's a juvenile joke, and in the gaming world, it raised nary a ripple. But it may get at what kind of mindset, exactly, is allowed to flourish inside even major, billion-dollar game corporations, and it may put in context the bizarre news today that Evans proposed a shockingly distasteful, anti-Semitic game to his colleagues.
In an interview with Polygon's Alexa Ray Corriea, Evans discussed one of the games he came up with at Ubisoft's Design Academy retreat:
Evans' second big pitch, which he acknowledges was "incredibly offensive," was for an adventure game called So Jew Wanna Be a Thief? by a fake company named "Jewbisoft." Players would be put into the role of a misunderstood Hasidic Jewish man who snuck around stealing things.
"People think he's a thief and they say, 'Oh he's just stealing shit, Jews, all about his money,' but that's not it at all," Evans explained. "He's got a serious problem, he's got kleptomania."
Despite the game's questionable name and content, its stealth mechanics were serious. The game's inventory system would have been similar to that of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, with all items laid out on a grid, but with a strategic element to their organization. Players would have to be careful what items them put next to each other so they made no noise when they ran. For example, placing two bottles next to each other would cause a clinking sound that would alert security guards when running.
"I tried really hard to get that game made and of course ... that's never going to happen," Evans says. It's not surprising that a major international company wouldn't want to publish a game that uses anti-Semitic stereotypes as a punchline — but Evans is all about challenging what people find acceptable.
Setting aside the question of whether or not Evans is an anti-Semite—and I don't think he is—there are two remarkable things going on here. The first is that within the culture of Ubisoft, one of the ten largest gaming companies in the world, with billion-dollar revenues, Evans felt comfortable mocking up and sharing this insanely offensive idea for a game. The second is that Evans, years later, felt comfortable sharing the existence of this game in an interview with the press!
This is obviously the behavior of someone who feels immensely comfortable doing and saying what he pleases. Evans apparently cannot conceive of ways in which these words would make someone who is not him uncomfortable. And If he can, he doesn't think he has to care. It's important to remember that Ubisoft—a company in which Evans holds a position of power— is a huge, diverse company making games for a huge, diverse audience. In this context, his blithe attitude towards things that other people might legitimately find painful is, frankly, an egregious display of privilege. (Asked for comment on So Jew Wanna Be a Thief? and Evans, Ubisoft did not respond.)
Of course, it comes packaged as something else. Evans seems to be using the fact that he created So Jew Wanna Be a Thief as proof of his own rebellious ethos. Of course, in a way, that is one of the attractive qualities about the gaming world: it's young, and there's a frontier spirit, the idea that old prejudices and reactions and models don't apply. A quote from Evans later in the Polygon piece attests to this:
What drives me on is knowing that we are in an industry that's in its infancy, and we can do whatever the fuck we want, we have no limits to whatever we want to create. We have to pick our battles, obviously, but we can make whatever the fuck we want.
But that very lack of institutional knowledege also means that the good pressures that have evolved to suppress outlandish and offensive behavior either don't exist or don't exist to a sufficient extent to prevent truly embarrassing behavior. It's unimaginable that a director, or an editor at a major publishing house, would mock up a script or a book proposal called So Jew Wanna Be a Thief?, even in jest.
Ultimately, what this may come down to is the fact that people in positions of creative power in gaming are not used to being taken seriously. And with a very few exceptions, we, the public, have not done so, not to the extent we do with directors, and producers, and musicians, and writers. Why? I hardly need to belabor the point that game makers are so proud of making, that games are titanic industry worthy of considering alongside movies. That's a claim to take seriously. So here's a challenge to those elements of the gaming world stuck in a season-one-of-South-Park world of "see what I can say" humor: grow the fuck up.
Update 1:57 P.M.: Ubisoft public relations chief Marie Claude Bernard responded to BuzzFeed by email: "Our games are created by multicultural teams of various faiths and beliefs. While we will always support those teams' creative freedom, these comments are inappropriate and Ubisoft in no way endorses or condones discrimination or prejudice. We will address the matter internally and don't have any further comment."
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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